Hank has been sending me text messages about not posting enough. He’s also encouraged me to pick a fight with him. Let me take up the challenge by making some critical remarks on something he wrote in a comment to a recent post. But before I do so I’d like to reiterate that Hank started it (!) so if this post has a slightly polemical feel you know who’s to blame. :-)
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the comments section of this blog, Hank’s claim is as follows: In the last couple of decades historians have “gotten pretty good at [describing] how individual actors [use] ideas and cultural resources as they grapple with the world.” My guess is he sees this as a good thing. However, he also says that in our effort to understand individual strategies we have come to neglect the “structures determining both those usages and what's available to use in the first place.” For this reason, he advocates a return to structuralism and suggests using “tools in the digital humanities” as a potentially new way to “access the structures of words and concepts out of which actors did all this crafting.”
To my mind, there are two ways we might read this suggestion. The first questions the appropriate scope of our historical narratives. Should we focus on individuals, institutions, or larger entities such as Bloch’s mentalités or Foucault’s epistemes. So we might say that Hank is staging a methodological intervention. But we can also take him to be staking a deeper, more ontological claim. Perhaps it’s a more fundamental question that’s got him worried, one about what causes us to behave in the ways that we do. It’s not really possible to say one way or the other with certainty judging from his comments alone. Still, to my mind his ultimate conclusion—that we turn to the digital humanities—tips the scales towards the former: his concern is more methodological than ontological.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest you can’t use tools from the digital humanities to lay the empirical foundation for a deep analysis of human behavior. Rather, my worry is that Hank’s focus on tools like online data mining or computer-aided textual analysis is just that: a focus on tools or methods rather than foundational issues. So although I do not doubt that performing statistical analyses on large datasets has the potential to yield powerful empirical insights I also do not think doing so can absolve us from the philosophical task of answering what I take to be ultimately more important questions, such as: How should we understand the nature of human agency? What is a culture and how does it structure our shared lived experiences? Or, what is the best way to situate a play by Shakespeare, a cantata by Bach, or a scientific theory by Galileo in its social and historical context?
I’ve tried to distinguish two different ways we might read Hank’s suggestion. Obviously ontology and methodology are not independent though. For example, perhaps we feel that Shakespeare was not just a genius poet with an uncanny gift for inventing characters who appear to lead rich inner lives. Perhaps we prefer to say he was the product of a remarkable time and place: London during the 1590s. If that is our view, then it would be historically misleading to interpret his plays as a timeless commentary on the human condition. To situate them in the local context of Elizabethan England would therefore not just be one among any number of attractive methodological options. Rather, doing so is our responsibility. This is just to say that decisions about the scope of our historical narratives are not will-o-the-wisp. They ought to depend on where we stand in a philosophical debate about the nature of human agency, individual creativity, social structures, and cultural institutions.
So, how should we write the history of science? It would obviously be presumptuous for me to pretend I have the answer to this question. But I will say that I don’t think we should let technological and methodological innovations do the job of making the decision for us.